Fear and Lunchtime in Korea

She suddenly arrived out of nowhere, morphing from a blur in my peripheral vision to a large speaking mouth about a foot in front of my face, all in an imperceptibly short period of time.

“What are you doing for the zubzubzubzub?” she accused.

On account of the fact that I didn’t quite catch the last part, and I was still reeling in disbelief from the fact that somebody could go from irrelevant to invasive in under a second, I almost choked on my spicy jigae.

“What?” I replied, mostly out of conditioned social obligation than actual concern for what this random Korean woman was trying to ask me.

“What are you doing for the school holiday?” she repeated with such mechanical intonation that I can only imagine she’d been drilling this particular line since before the dawn of the first humans in anticipation of this very moment.

“What?” I repeated, gasping.

She had shoulder-length straight black hair and was wearing a navy dress concealed by a bizarre white flower blouse. Actual cotton roses stitched onto the outside of the whole thing. But while her outfit compounded my instant confusion, I was still further baffled by her an aggressively friendly demeanor. Sure I’d seen her around the school, but I had no idea what her name was, what she did, when we met and why I should be at all interested in answering the question. Now, if only I could say that in Korean.

“I didn’t know we had a holiday,” I replied with honesty. Nobody tells me anything.

“We should make an appointment to zubzubzub.”

Pinned. Now she knew. I couldn’t have previous plans if I just stupidly confessed that I didn’t know a thing about the upcoming 5-day break. I looked for an eject switch, but there were only two of us at the table. Face to face.

“Sure,” I replied, thinking fast, “but I’ll probably leave town. I love travelling.”

Out of nowhere: “What is their favorite food in Christmas for South Africa?”

Oh fuck, here we go. The English lessons while I’m trying to eat. This woman would spend the last half hour of my free time today beleaguering me with rote conversation topics, and I’m obliged to be not just engaged in what she’s saying, but wholeheartedly interested. A specter of horror flashed suddenly over my eyes. What if, I wondered in panic. What if, as a result of a pious obligation to say the right things, I ended up spending a whole day of my vacation ambling the zubzubzubzub with this woman, with nothing to talk about other than why the ever-fascinating present continuous tense can be used to express future intentions.

I was explaining roast chicken.

The next 15 minutes:

I ate slowly, chewing fully and leaving her to wait for answers while I actually enjoyed my food.
I offered vague answers to her vague questions (“How’s the weather in South Africa?” “Hot, cold.”)
I over-employed the grunted response to recklessly selected questions, hoping that the roof would suddenly start leaking above my head.

The encounter ended like it started. She suddenly finished eating and was already on her feet. I could see the adamant look in her eyes, and it was terrifying. There was absolutely no doubt that we would spend the holiday together next week, wandering the zubzubzubzub nostalgically like two old friends, discussing the finer grammar of our most treasured and magnificent English.

“See you then,” she whispered, conspiratorially.


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